The 2014 NBA Draft was one of the most highly-hyped in recent memory. By all accounts, the draft contained tons of talent and is expected to provide the NBA with at least a few future all-stars.
It is difficult to evaluate a draft class prior to the start of the inaugural season, but if the Summer League showings over the past couple weeks were any indication, that hype was not misplaced. The incoming rookie class is stock-full of talented young players popping with potential, some of whom may make immediate impacts on their squad.
There’s the high-flying Andrew Wiggins, who already appears to be a tightened-handle away from being a legitimate offensive option. There’s sharp-shooting Doug McDermott, who has already begun to ease fears about his transition from college to professional play. Jabari Parker was solid, if not spectacular, throughout his summer league stint, displaying the skill set that made him such a promising prospect.
As expected, T.J. Warren showed that he could be a scoring machine for the Suns, and Orlando lottery pick-via Philadelphia, Elfrid Payton showed strong signs of versatility as a guard.
Still though, the most impressive, and potentially promising performance from a rookie thus far this summer came not from a selection of the vaunted 2014 draft, but rather a player picked in the comparatively paltry 2013 draft class.
For a guy that has been pining to play since 4-4-14, and likely long before then, the Summer League showcase couldn’t have gone much better for Nerlens Noel.
Yes there were a couple concerns about injury issues—a brief scare with an ankle injury, and some speculation about his sitting on the sideline for full games, which the team assured was just a cautionary measure—but such concern is commonplace for a guy coming off such a serious surgery. Until Noel can demonstrate over the course of a season(s) that he can stay out on the court, every time he lands wrong or looks to be limping, the Philadelphia faithful will hold its collective breath.
Injuries aside however, Noel’s play was promising and he displayed the immediate impact he could have on the 76ers franchise. Touted as a high-energy paint protector, Noel demonstrated those skills, blocking every ball he could get his hands on and serving as a defensive deterrent on many other opportunities, often forcing an incoming offensive player to alter his approach. His 5.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game this summer were solid statistics, and they will only be improved upon once he gets back to game-shape and becomes more accustomed to NBA play.
With all the big names dominating the Summer League stage, Noel came away not only looking like the player that will have the most immediate on-court impact, but also as a realistic Rookie of the Year candidate.
Noel finished Summer League in the top spot of NBA.com’s Rookie Ladder, and his performance also landed him in the top spot of their Rookie pre-season top 10 (read: Rookie of the Year rankings).
It wasn’t just his paint protection that was impressive about Noel in Vegas and Orlando, but also his ability to defend and pressure players all the way out to the perimeter. His foot speed and athleticism allow him to defend players on the perimeter in a manner not typical for someone of his stature. He is also adept at defending the pick-and-roll, an increasingly important skill in today’s spread-the-floor NBA. Several times throughout the Summer Leagues Noel was able to not only defend, but defeat the pick-and-roll, securing a steal and igniting a fast break for his team. He recently discussed this aspect of his game with ESPN.
“I like to get out on pick-and-rolls,” he told the worldwide leader. “If the point guard tries to spilt the screen, I think I’m very capable of picking his pocket. I think it gets us on the fast break, gets us going, and creates a lot of opportunities for a team like us that really strives for a high pace.”
Wiggins has the potential to be an excellent lock-down defender, but based off his Summer League, it certainly seems that Noel will have the greatest and most immediate impact on the defensive end out of all those debuting this upcoming season. Considering the importance of defense and the comparative rarity with which dominant defenders are drafted, Noel projects to be a pretty impactful player.
Sitting out the entirety of last season was a struggle for Noel, who was, admittingly and understandably, itching to play. There was a silver lining to his sidelined season however, and that lining could be seen on the offensive end throughout the Summer Leagues. While far from dominant, Noel looked much improved offensively. Along with his ability to create second chances, Noel displayed a developing drop step, expanded range, potential as a passer, and, maybe most importantly, consistency from the foul line.
Sixers coaches, namely Greg Foster, worked with Noel throughout last season to expand his offensive arsenaland the work is clearly paying off. Everyone expected Noel to be a force defensively, but if he can average a consistent and efficient 16 points per, he could become downright dangerous.
Noel’s advantage in the Rookie of the Year race may be in his team’s situation. The Sixers, with no immediate intention to contend, can afford to play him a whole mess of minutes and allow him to learn and grow on the go, as they did with Michael Carter-Williams last season. Compared to a player like Andrew Wiggins, who may have a more restricted role on a talented team, Noel should have ample opportunity to show his stuff.
In the face of what is sure to be another struggle of a season for the Sixers, the emergence of Nerlens Noel is something to be excited about.